Pablo Marquez pumps his fists toward the rafters of Coral Springs Gymnasium. Sweat races off his forehead, dripping onto the soft cotton fabric of his royal blue leotard. His wide, brown eyes gaze menacingly at Ricky Young, a wrestler packing a chiseled 254-pound body into a six-foot-four frame. Marquez's black-and-white patent leather boots bounce on the 18-by-18-foot bloodstained wrestling ring as he lets out a howl:
At five-foot-eight and 183 pounds, the Quito native resembles a Chihuahua about to naively engage an American bulldog in a righteously unfair dogfight. Young, an olive-skinned, muscular titan with a Japanese-themed sleeve tattoo that runs from his left pec to his left wrist, beats his chest with a mastiff-like ferocity. "Come get some!" Young barks. The pair growl and snap at each other to the ecstatic delight of 75 to 100 spectators, mostly prepubescent boys and their parents, who have shown up for Coastal Championship Wrestling's annual Hardcore Holiday event, held this past December 4.
In the front row, an overweight fan wearing all black attire and Insane Clown Posse face paint, yells: "Crush him, Ricky!" Young's manager and retired wrestler Scott Hall, his shoulder-length raven hair twisted into a French braid, stalks the side of the ring just in front of the announcer's table.
Marquez and Young circle each other, then lunge, clasping their hands around each other's necks. Young throttles Marquez onto the ropes. After a flurry of violence, he picks up Marquez, puts him over his shoulders, and purposely falls backward, landing his massive weight on top of the little guy, who hits the canvas hard. "How you like that, punk?" Young hisses.
Since he began wrestling 19 years ago, the doe-eyed Ecuadorian has been cast as a Puerto Rican, donned a sombrero and poncho as a Mexican for low-budget outfits in Broward County, and even assumed the identity of a sardine-eating Hindu servant to reach the pinnacle of professional wrestling, where names such as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the Undertaker, the Rock, and MVP draw thousands to sold-out arenas and stadiums.
"People still remember that character," Marquez says. "I never became rich, but I have a lot of good memories, and I made a lot of good friends."
Working the local independent circuit is a vexing journey for any wrestler. Unlike World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), most of the leagues in South Florida scrape by, relying on a loyal yet small fan base to fill local shows. Young wrestlers participate to gain experience and exposure that may ultimately lead to the WWE but usually garners them attention from midlevel organizations from around the country and the world, where they make $1,000 or less a week.
For older guys like Marquez, events like Hardcore Holiday provide a forum to continue feeding off the adrenalin that keeps wrestlers pumped. There are no sold-out arenas, big paydays, or television cameras on the independent circuit, just lots of blood, bruises, and concussions for a bunch of human pinballs whose day jobs range from private security guards to city garbage workers. Wrestlers have been known to drive 400 miles to earn $5 for the joy of being body-slammed around a ring.
"When I was breaking into wrestling, I thought I was going to become a millionaire," Marquez says. "The reality is that there are thousands of wrestlers out there, but only five really make a living out of it. Now, being in the ring has become therapy for me. It has kept me sane."
Today, the 37-year-old fireplug is at the tail end of his career, performing occasional gigs in the Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico, and South Florida. He works a 9-to-5 as a file clerk for a process service company and sometimes trains wrestlers for Don Ackerman, who owns Body Slam University along with South Florida wrestler Bruno Sassi. The duo charges enrollees $100 a month to learn the trade and helps them land gigs around the state, some through their own wrestling promotion company, Coastal Championship Wrestling, which puts on Hardcore Holiday. Other local leagues include Independent Champion Wrestling and Future of Wrestling, which provide venues for green wrestlers to hone their skills and pay their dues. Still, only a small number get opportunities to compete in Florida Championship Wrestling, an organization that cultivates performers for the WWE.
Ackerman, who has wrestled professionally for 20 years, says anyone considering a career in leotards and boots has to come to terms with the minuscule odds of becoming a multimillion-dollar commodity like the Rock or "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. The shows he puts on are a labor of love, his income coming from 12-hour days working as a process server.
In the five years he's owned the academy, only one pupil has become a superstar. He's Opa-locka-raised Alvin Burke Jr., who went on to become MVP, WWE's United States champion in 2007. Burke left WWE this past December. "It's a numbers game at the end of the day," Ackerman says. "You really have to catch a promoter's eye. Showmanship can't be taught. You have to step outside yourself, and become a character. Some guys can't do it."